Review of MARVELS by Malcolm Borthwick

Written by Marcus Bicknell on .

Very insightful and interesting review by Malcolm Borthwick, an old friend through Susie's father:

I have just finished Marvels and enjoyed the read very much. The construction of the book is clever and given the subject there are moments when the tale reads at a quicker pace that others.

The setting of the Victorian zeit geist is a well trodden one and amply explained. But quickly the unusual aspects start to assert themselves hence quickens the readers interest. To make a fortune out of whaling (trade) means that Elnahan would qualify as a gentleman, albeit a nouveau one, but certainly not regarded at the time as upper class in that stifling Victorian way of society's hierarchy. But then both his religious background and artistic tastes immediately set him apart from the establishment. This individualism and wealth and the suggestion of Gladstonian liberalism in the background sets the scene for Clarence’s interesting background and ultimate irritation with the chattering classes of the day. The early chapter on religious revival and the Oxford movement I found the slowest reading but have to concede it is important to understand to appreciate Clarences future and maybe even his life long bachelordom.

The lack of joining the educational mainstream for social advancement (i.e. public school) to pursue power via politics or capitalism to end up as a wealthy young man in the natural sciences really fires up the readers interest. No clogs to clogs in 3 generations for Clarence.

One curious omission seems to me his lack of interest in what was going on in the UK given the passion for botany, developments of botanical gardens, arboreta et al at the time. All the more so with his connection to the Hanbury developments next door in the Mediterranian. For wasnt it a Miss Hanbury who made the unhappy marriage to Osgood Mackenzie who developed the extraordinary garden at Poolewe in Wester Ross which survives to this day. At the same time fortunes from trade (werent the Hanburys brewers) were develping arboreta and gardens in Scotland which had it’s own prestigious Botanical Garden in Edinburgh. The Balfours at Dawyck (South Arican traders) or the Youngers (brewers again) at Benmore, near Dunoon were all keen botanical developers given the gulf stream climate and substantial rainfall in Scotlands west, like Poolewe. To this day these gardens and arboreta are not only extensive but fasciatimg to visit. I wonder how they passed him by.

With the age of steam communications all of these develpments were much easier to reach than going to Ceylon, for instance. Even the West Highland line took you to within a mere gig ride of Mackenzie’s garden at Poolewe.

The endearing quality of Clarence is his boredom and prejudice with the chattering classes. But also his classless reationships with is employees. Luigi’s tribute makes a wonderful ending this remarkable life and the final demise makes a poignant end. One is left with a feeling of a life well led and he was surely a proto socialist in the best meaning of the word.

So Bravo to Valerie Lester and all of you for bringing Clarence to us in the 21st century. It must have been a fascinating project.



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